Airline passengers in the UK are being let down by toothless regulation, with no airline fined in the last 20 years for breaching obligations, the consumer group Which? has found.

It called for urgent legislation to beef up the regulator’s powers, contrasting the lack of action in the UK over unpaid refunds or compensation with fines issued in other countries.

The Civil Aviation Authority was given powers in June 2003 to apply to courts to ensure enforcement against airlines for consumer protection. It has only pursued that course of action once, however, against Ryanair in 2018, in a case that ended with the airline agreeing to pay due compensation to passengers but no further sanction.

Authorities in the US this month fined British Airways $1.1m after 1,200 complaints about delayed refunds during the pandemic, but the carrier has not faced any similar threat in the UK over affected customers.

British law requires airlines to issue refunds for cancellations within seven days, but many passengers waited months during the pandemic.

CAA data from 2020 alone also showed more than 24,000 complaints recorded over compensation under the EU261, due from airlines for cancelled or delayed flights. Italy, Germany and Greece are among the other nations whose regulators have fined airlines in recent years.

Which? said the CAA should be doing more to pursue law-breaking airlines and urgently needed stronger enforcement powers.

The Department for Transport announced this week that it plans to give the CAA the power to fine airlines “when parliamentary time allows”.

Which? urged the government to act without delay and legislate in the next King’s Speech. Its director of policy Rocio Concha said: “The US government fining Britain’s flag carrier when our own authorities are powerless to do the same makes a mockery of aviation regulation in the UK, which has been failing travellers for 20 years.

“Passengers have repeatedly endured unfair and in some cases unlawful treatment by some airlines in recent years and meaningful action is long past due.”

Until it gives the regulator powers to hold airlines to account, “UK travellers’ rights will be worth no more than the paper they are written on”, she said.

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The CAA’s head of consumer, Anna Bowles, said: “We have regularly asked for stronger consumer enforcement powers, including the ability to impose fines on airlines.”

A BA spokesperson said: “Where a customer’s flight is cancelled, we always offer options including a full refund, rerouting or rebooking on to another service, including with other airlines. We always meet our legal obligations.”

Ryanair said any customers entitled to compensationas a result of staff strikes in 2018 “who applied directly to Ryanair for compensation have received compensation directly from Ryanair in line with EU261”.

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